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Mormons riled up about "Big Love"

They say you can take the boy out of the Jell-O Belt*, but you can’t take the Jell-O Belt out of the boy. I began distancing myself from religion in general and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) in particular around the age I figured out Santa Claus wasn’t real, either. That was about a year or two after the much younger (yet still sportin’ the buzz-cut!) me in that picture above was dunked in a pool like the one above, surrounded by seven six or twelve golden oxen (I don’t recall exactly how many), in order to cleanse me of all my eight-year colection of mortal sins — like the time I found one of dad’s Playboy magazines and saw my first non-maternal boobie. (I’ve since moved on to collect a much wider and more depraved set of sins… but my first love will always be the boobies!)

But I still follow the news items related to Mormons, so it piqued my curiosity when the Huffington Post tipped me off to the controversy surrounding a new drama set to air on HBO this march entitled “Big Love”:

(NY Post) HBO’s new polygamy drama, “Big Love,” doesn’t premiere until March 12, but it’s already stirring up big trouble in Utah.

The Tom Hanks-produced series stars Bill Paxton as a Viagra-popping Mormon with three wives, three houses and more problems than Tony Soprano. Chloe Sevigny and Jeanne Tripplehorn have career-saving roles as wives No. 1 and 2, respectively, with Ginnifer Goodwin as No. 3.

Although Paxton’s character isn’t affiliated with mainstream Mormonism, viewers could be forgiven for assuming so – a mistake that members of the faith, which has lately been making inroads into mainstream America, desperately want to avoid.

Uh-oh. Do we have another Book of Daniel-style fracas in the making? Will the LDS faithful be screaming for boycotts and protests, a la the American Family Association?

Guess again. Mormons are the polite, inoffensive second cousin of the American Christian landscape — sort of like the Christian Canada sharing a spiritual continent with James Dobson’s America. They are only asking that the show accurately depicts mainstream Mormonism’s rebuke of polygamous Mormon splinter groups:

(Deseret News) These polygamists are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — a fact the series makes pretty clear. But is it clear enough?

HBO and the producers certainly think so.

“I think what the show does very clearly is it makes a very big distinction between the mainline church and the characters in the show,” said Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment. “It is interesting how many people are ignorant about the Mormon Church and think that (it) actually does condone polygamy.

“So, in an odd way, this show is sort of beneficial in drawing that distinction.”

But you and I both know your average American can’t be bothered to pay attention such details as character development, setting, context, or plot. So the Mormons — in their polite Canadian-like way — are clarifying the point and asking that HBO do the same:

“Polygamy was officially discontinued in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1890. Any church member adopting the practice today is excommunicated. Those groups which continue the practice in Utah and elsewhere have no association whatever with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [other than living in and around Utah, preaching from the Book of Mormon, and a fondness for Jell-O], and most of their practitioners have never been among our members.

“The church has long been concerned about the continued illegal practice of polygamy, and in particular about reports of child and wife abuse emanating from polygamous communities today. It will be regrettable if this program, by making polygamy the subject of entertainment, minimizes the seriousness of that problem.

“Through its Los Angeles public affairs office, church representatives have asked the producers at HBO to consider a disclaimer at the beginning of the program, dissociating the practice of polygamy today from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The producers have said they are willing to consider that request.”

The Mormon church has the benefit of a God who frequently calls the church president to let them know when their policies are becoming a bit too unpopular for mainstream consumption. Polygamy was all fine and dandy during the church’s first few decades of existence, in fact, ordained by God with plenty of Biblical and Book of Mormonical (?) Scripture to back it up. But near the end of the 19th century when Utah was seeking statehood in a Union that fiercely opposed the “one man many women” concept of marriage, God was kind enough to provide revelation to the church leaders that He was amending “one man many women” to the ideal “one man one woman” — not that an omniscient deity would initially make a mistake or anything, but instead because He likes to keep us on our toes by shaking up the rules now and then.

But Utah activist Vicky Prunty, who escaped a polygamist marriage and is now executive director of Tapestry Against Polygamy, hopes “Big Love” will further expose what she calls the church’s “secret shame.”

“They might not practice polygamy, but they still believe in it,” she said. “They only outlawed it so that Utah could get statehood. The LDS church can try to pretend that it doesn’t exist, but the truth will always rear its ugly head. Thanks to this show, the church leaders are up there on the hill shaking a bit, and that gives me some pleasure.”

Other religions should be so lucky to have a God that pays attention to the evolving social politics of the modern era. Mormon leaders were also bestowed with revelation that black folks weren’t actually given their dark skin by God as visible reminder of their sinful heritage and lesser status as the descendents of Cain… and it only took a decade after the slaying of Dr. King for God to get around to it! Again, not because an omnipotent deity couldn’t have originally broke that news to Joseph Smith. God was just protecting the early Mormons from early American racists of the time who might have tarred them as “n*gger lovers”. Just as He is protecting them now from taunts of “f*ggot lovers”.

An HBO spokesperson said “Big Love” co-creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer ultimately decided to add the following note at the end of the first episode:

“According to a joint report issued by the Utah and Arizona attorney ge
neral’s offices, July 2005, ‘approximately 20,000 to 40,000 or more people currently practice polygamy in the United States.’ The Mormon Church officially banned the practice of polygamy in 1890.

Having asked a dozen or so TV critics who’ve seen at least some of the first five episodes, most agreed that it’s a clear distinction. One, however, was surprised to learn mainstream Mormons aren’t polygamists — and he’d seen all five episodes.

See? What did I tell you about Americans paying attention to character development, setting, context, or plot? Now, will a country that made a horrendous assumption based on two tangentially related statements — “Muslim terrorists attacked us on 9/11” + “Iraq is a country full of Muslims” = “Saddam helped with 9/11!” — make another horrendous assumption like “There are tens of thousands of polygamists” + “Mormons officially banned polygamy” = “There’s a whole lot of unofficial Mormons out west!”?

The producers also took great pains to make it clear that “Big Love” is not anti-Mormon.

“When we brought this project to HBO, there were two caveats that we had. . . . We were not interested in the glib, the sensational, the tawdry, the salacious. Our interests went much deeper than that,” Olsen said. “And we also wanted to communicate to HBO (that) we had no ax to grind against the Mormon Church. And those remain our guiding principles in this material.”

While he has no Mormon background, Olsen has done enormous research and has a firm grasp of the culture. It’s not just that the scripts are sprinkled with LDS references, but they’re in context. And he speaks easily and knowledgeably about various polygamous groups ranging from Bluffdale to Colorado City.

He knows enough that he edited out a scene in a later episode that featured temple garments being treated disrespectfully. [“Temple garments” are the holy underwear that Mormons must wear ALL OF THE TIME to remind them of their promises to God — think Fruit-of-the-Loom Chastity Rings.]

“I just couldn’t leave it in. We really don’t want to offend members” of the LDS Church, he said.

But he’s not going to be surprised if they are. And, make no mistake, this is an HBO show that’s far from family fare. Olsen expects church members to be offended by the sex scenes, which are HBO-explicit. But, clearly, they’re not aiming for an LDS audience.

Lest anyone think I’m picking on Mormons… well, OK, I’m picking on Mormons. But as far as I’m concerned, they’re really no sillier than any other Christian mythology. But for a silly evangelizing Christian mythology, they also have many positive traits:

* they don’t get all bent out of shape and threaten mass advertiser boycotts of controversial shows; they just don’t watch them (please, President Hinckley, could you pen a note to Donald Wildmon?)
* a very strong commitment to solid family relationships (Family Home Evening, they call it),
* a social safety net in the form of church-based welfare for members experiencing hardships,
* emergency preparedness planning in the form church teachings to stock up a year’s worth of food and water,
* a lifestyle that preaches health, nutrition, and exercise (Utah leads or is close to the lead in many health-related categories),
* charitable giving to victims of natural and man-made disaster,
* support for the separation of church & state (East Coast elites forcing you to give up your many wives will do that for you), [Update] OK, maybe just “separation of state & church”… you’re right about Mormon interference in gay marriage amendments, equal rights amendments, and Utah state politics…
* an awesome genealogical database — my Mormon aunt traced most of my direct bloodlines to the 10th century and some of my indirect bloodlines back to to my 57th-Great Grandfather, Frithuwald (Bor) of Asgard, Asia, born about 190 AD, and his grandfather, Finn, my 59th-Great Grandfather, but without a birthdate (damn 2nd century record keeping!)
* and most of all, they can be some of the sweetest, most generous, kind-hearted people you’d ever want to meet… like Canadians!

Sorry if this last part reads like a recruiting pamphlet. Love for my deceased aunt compelled me to say something nice. But don’t worry, there’s no chance in the Telestial Kingdom I’m going to be riding a bike wearing a short-sleeved white shirt and black tie anytime in the future. Temple garments get in the way of the boobies… whether it’s two of ’em, four of ’em, six of ’em…

*The self-referential term for Utah and Idaho, home to large Mormon families that consider the colorful gelatin a staple food for dinner and church socials. The old joke in the church of my youth was “How many Mormons does it take to change a light bulb? Five: one to change the bulb and four to bring punch and Jell-O.”

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